Science, Art, and Exploitation: Brecht on Cultural Subversion

by Shaun Terry

            Brecht begins “A Short Organum for the Theatre” by inspecting how art relates to social relations. “This theatre justified its inclination to social commitment by pointing to the social commitment in universally accepted works of art, which only fail to strike the eye because it was the accepted commitment.” (179) What is clear here is that all works of art rely on social commitments. The most invisible of these commitments are the most banal—the least challenging to our assumptions of how things should go (which is often, simply, the way things tend to go). So, when Brecht’s theater challenges social norms, criticisms of Brecht’s works—on the grounds of their tendency to express social commitments—ring hollow. Legitimate criticism must acknowledge that all works of art have social content value, so if one is to criticize a work of art on the basis of its social commitments, those criticisms are only legitimate when they confront the content-values of those commitments. As such, works of art that do not foreground critical positions tend to perpetuate the status quo.

Brecht concerns himself with relationships between science and art, especially in their figuring of culture and social relations. First, on p. 184, he says that the bourgeoisie have stopped science from illuminating the relations between people “during the exploiting and dominating process.” Regardless of the intention, the meaning of the quoted section is multiple: the “exploiting and dominating process” can apply to primitive accumulation; settler colonization; cultural hegemony; worker relations; identity relations, like those of “race,” gender, sexual preference, etc.; neocolonialism; big data, and probably other social phenomena. In fact, humans’ exploitation of nature shares a relationship to humans’ exploitation of other humans. On p. 185, Brecht points out that attitudes that were once reserved for natural disasters now apply to “undertakings by the rulers.” Brecht then says, “But science and art meet on this ground, that both are there to make men’s [sic] life easier, the one setting out to maintain, the other to entertain us.” When Brecht says that science makes people’s life easier by maintaining the status quo, it seems to me that he is, in some sense, being sarcastic. If we consider that he sees his theater project as potentially subverting the status quo, along with the fact that he sees science as exploiting nature and exploiting humanity—all for the sake of domination by the bourgeoisie—he cannot mean that science is purely beneficial to society. So when Brecht says, “In the age to come art will create entertainment from that new productivity which can so greatly improve our maintenance, and in itself, if only it is left unshackled, may prove to be the greatest pleasure of them all,” he may be unintentionally predicting how modern society’s science and art do more to enrich the wealthy few than to liberate the underprivileged masses.